How Negativity Can Ruin Relationships

Negativity often works like a slow poison between married partners.

Posted Feb 24, 2020

It's not hard to imagine how negativity can be damaging for a healthy relationship. The problem is, we see so many examples of negative interactions between couples—on television, in movies, and in "real life"—that nagging, teasing, criticizing, or speaking poorly of our partners (even if you're "just joking") can start to seem like normal behavior.

And sure, maybe negativity is "normal" or at least common in a majority of relationships—but that doesn't mean it's helpful. In fact, scientific research (as well as your own intuition, we're guessing) shows us that negative words, attitudes, and interactions can be extremely detrimental to the integrity of a relationship and tear it apart from the inside out.

Is negativity a major theme in your married life? Let's see just how problematic this can be and what you can do to start making a more positive shift.

What Is Negativity Bias?

Negativity often works like a slow poison between married partners.

Small, unloving interactions repeated over days, months, and years damage the sense of physical and emotional intimacy between two people. This hinders a couple's ability to trust each other and paves the way for the so-called "Four Horsemen" to flood the relationship: criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling. Eventually, the toxic impact of negativity can be so great that the catastrophic failure of a relationship can occur.

Why is it so common to be so hard on our partners, anyway? It may be a combination of factors: we're holding onto past sleights; we're not properly expressing our needs or taking care of our own mental and physical well-being; we have unfair expectations of our spouse's behaviors; our spouses know us well enough to "push our buttons"; we project our own stresses onto them; and finally, we simply may just start taking our spouses for granted. Whatever the reason, it's important not to minimize or downplay the potential impact that negativity can have, not only on your marriage but also on your own health.

A major reason why negativity can be so powerful is that humans have a cognitive tendency known as "negative bias." In psychology, negative bias means that we tend to remember, learn from, and pay attention to negative information more readily than we do positive information. We tend to have a stronger reaction—behaviorally and biochemically—to negative interactions than positive interactions.

This is why one insult can affect you way more intensely than five compliments will, or why you may lie awake at night dwelling on all the unpleasant events of your life instead of remembering and focusing on the good ones. Unfortunately, we're just biologically and socially hardwired to notice that stuff more.

In other words: The bad stuff can stick in our minds, hearts, and bodies much more easily than the good stuff will! This idiosyncratic programming of the human mind can dramatically skew your perception of your spouse, and potentially blind you to all the good things they have to offer and the good times you've shared in your marriage.

And as you can imagine, eventually this can spell serious trouble.

How to Protect Your Relationship From Negativity Bias

Here's a general rule to live by: You can't address a problem if you're not aware of the problem. So, the first step in reducing the amount of negativity within your marriage is to become more consciously aware of it.

Pay attention to the negative thoughts, words, feelings, and behaviors you have and exhibit toward your spouse. Consider writing them down in a journal for a few days so you can look back at them with some objective insight. This experiment in itself may be enough to start shifting your attitude from the negative toward the positive! Be sure to approach it with a sense of curiosity rather than self-judgment, and trust that you (and your spouse) are doing the best you can.

Here are a few other tips for bolstering your marriage against the harmful effects of negativity and changing the overall tone of your relationship:

  • Be kind. Yup! It can really start that simply. Give genuine compliments, do a favor, speak kindly about your spouse to other people, perform random acts of kindness like getting a small gift or cooking a special meal "just because"—much like you probably did back when you were still just dating! Even if you don't feel like being kind to your spouse sometimes, doing something thoughtful or kind for him or her can really start to shift your energy. It may be helpful to remember the so-called "magic ratio" found in happy marriages, according to researcher Dr. John Gottman. That is, for every one negative interaction a happily married couple has, there are at least five positive ones that effectively "balance it out" or even mitigate the negative interaction's effect. It's like a homeostatic "set point" of successful marriages—and it is possible to shift your marriage to that spot.
  • Be grateful. Consciously write and talk about the things you're thankful for about your marriage and your spouse.
  • Be more forgiving. This includes offering forgiveness to your spouse and to yourself. If you have old hurts that need to be uncovered, consider working with a marriage counselor who can provide you and your spouse the space to discuss these issues and introduce you to effective tools to address them.
  • Take care of yourself. Looking after your own physical and mental wellness is non-negotiable when it comes to having a healthy and successful marriage. Be sure to prioritize things in your life that will help you stay healthy and manage your stress, including sufficient amounts of exercise, sleep, healthy foods, and time just to play, enjoy hobbies, and relax.